The Panama Mission Trip participants gathered
I am traveling with the Trinity mission and service trip to Panama, to work in partnership with the diocese down here, making ourselves available for a few days for work projects requested and designed by the folks here in the diocese.
I'm not always a fan of church mission trips, which often are misfired attempts to do something tangible FOR folks in perceived need, often installing or providing stuff that wasn't really needed or wanted, and sometimes working in isolation from the people themselves - huge expenditure for little result.
But this is different. The baseline of these trips is relationship, and the assumption is mutual exchange. The work must be requested, designed, and managed by the people we serve, and the projects must involve both the visitors and visited in the actual work. The work is real, but it is intentionally secondary - a conduit for building relationship with people who would never cross paths, where the collision of our realities changes us all.
After today's adventure I can attest that this is not a fabrication or a rationalization, but a vibrant reality.
We went to the tiny parish of San Mateo, outside Panama City, to paint the inside of the church, and to paint a Scripture verse along a street-side wall. The church and our group were well organized, but there was enough inefficiency in the project to be comical - to the extent that we discovered that neither of our groups had brought the paint for the wall!
Preparing to paint
But rather than this creating crisis or obstruction, it just became the next chapter of the experience. The trip to the paint store became a chance to know Rogelio, who feels like a fast friend now, and I saw the same thing happening with others at every turn. Everyone was visibly flowering, reaching across language, culture, and other barriers to create for a moment what we say Christian community is all about.
Yes, we could have taken a fraction of what it cost us to fly down here and thrown it at San Mateo's to paint their church, but MasterCard is right about this one thing: getting to know and be affected by this community living on the backside of Panama City: Priceless.
What sticks with me most at the end of this sticky-hot day: the sense of concentrated abundance that is just shot through the texture of our hosts' lives. Everything at the parish was what we would call threadbare, but when we walked into their parish hall the music kicked in immediately and never quit throughout the day; the table was spread with local delicacies. The work happened, but there was always time for conversation, which got warmer and warmer by the hour.
Lunch was a feast, everything local, and everything proudly prepared and presented. The best of what they had. It was natural after lunch to dance for awhile before we went back to work (talk about culture shock for a New Yorker, where I'm lucky to stop for lunch at all!).
Lunch and conversation
As we washed out our brushes, we pulled down mangoes and knocked coconuts from the trees in the yard and drank their milk and ate their flesh. More than Relationship - Eucharist.
The goodbyes took forever, we couldn't figure out how to end this moment. In a sense, we will always have it.
I’m writing this on the eve of Pentecost, at the close of the great 50 days of Eastertide, and I’m thinking back to Easter Eve. At Trinity this year, Easter came a day early for us, when Lina died.
Lina was a matron of the parish, and more. Every parish has a ‘grandmother in the corner,’ often knitting as Lina did, who is the keeper of knowledge and wisdom, and often knits together the parish factions. It is this person, more than any elected position on a council or committee or vestry, who a leader does well to consult as a bellwether, who will indicate whether a plan will succeed or fail; this person is tied deeply into the soul of the parish. Lina was that for us, and more.
A few days before Easter, Lina became suddenly ill, and died early in Holy Week. As we looked at our options for a funeral, we discerned that the best place for it was Saturday morning, right before Easter. The church was already decorated, the choirs were already called for rehearsal, and so we quickly sent out the word, and the whole church gathered. And gathered. People came from far away, and years ago, in a big extended-family reunion. We broke out the Alleluias early, and we remembered her life in its vivid but quiet detail.
It was the way we remembered that caught my attention: As we eulogized in private or public, we said things like “Lina was like Jesus.” “Lina was the church.” She clearly represented something big for us, and the Rector captured it well when he anchored her life around her two most notable qualities: “Lina was Honest, and she was Gracious.” She told the truth, even if it’s not what people wanted to hear, but she was never mean, and her honesty was offered with grace, for a greater good.
After the funeral many people commented that Trinity had been at its true best that day — every branch and root of this huge spreading tree was in view and the sap was flowing quick in the veins — we knew who and how and why we were, because of this one woman. She called out to us more loudly and clearly in her death — because of her life, and she called out something in us; we all felt the pull to live more truthfully and graciously. Everyone agreed: Lina’s funeral was the first service of Easter Day.
Lina’s death taught me something about Easter’s meaning that I hope I never forget: In the several days before her funeral, and in the weeks following till now, I’ve run across person after person who says: “Lina’s not really dead, is she?” And they don’t mean ‘Lina went to heaven,’ but rather ‘Lina’s death issued a call to all of us to become everything that Lina was, in all her truthful grace, not just to eulogize her as an exemplary person.’ It’s only after Lina was gone in the flesh that we ‘got’ what she was all about and felt the call on our own lives.
I think something like that happened with the early disciples of Jesus:
The one fact about their life together is that they had no body. They had no tomb that they could turn into a shrine to remember Jesus. The tomb was empty. The memories were strong, and the rumors, and the sightings, and the fear and hope were swirling around and through those disciples, and each day “Jesus is alive” was becoming more a mantra not of recited dogma but of real experience, until Pentecost blazed out.
Now let me be clear: I am not saying that the church’s experience of Jesus’ resurrection is merely the same as our experience of Lina’s living memory. With all Christians my faith rests on these earliest creeds that rupture imperial domination and death itself: “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is alive.” But that faith is not about believing the veracity of historical events, it is about a present experience. “Jesus is alive” is only believable as we ourselves are becoming the Body of Christ — a real-time example of Life unmasking Death. It’s all about behavior than belief. Where and when the Body of Christ lives with truth and grace, there is an impossibly bright light that shines, even if through the cracks, and we all recognize it when it does. Our work, it seems to me, is to make those cracks more daily visible, not just at funerals and Easter.
Fifteen hundred years after those first disciples’ Easter-Pentecost experience, another disciple, St. Theresa of Avila, poetically ‘got it’ when she wrote:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on the world.
Christ has no body now on earth, but yours.”
At the Feast of the Ascension there is this wonderful turn of phrase in the prayers that says: Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” What an extraordinary possibility: that absence can become greater presence. Our little Lina-sized experience helps me understand how it happens in daily life, and on an infinitely grander scale, where we are all drawn up into the Resurrection.
Reading through the Bible in one sweep is changing its landscape for me in dramatic ways that I never expected.
As a boy, growing up in Bible land, there is almost no line of Scripture that I haven’t heard before. Large chunks of Paul’s letters I nearly memorized as a teenager in church competitions. But I’m finding that my daily reading of five or six chapters — especially the serial reading of the Old Testament, has helped me grab the sense behind the difficult texts in a new way.
Right now I and the hundred or so other readers at Trinity are cruising toward the end of Deuteronomy, which is written as the last sermon of Moses before entering the Promised Land, standing on the heights of Edom (Jordan), looking across the valley at Canaan. It’s a Cliff Notes version of the books before it — Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers — part condensed history of their 40 years in the desert, and part elaboration of the purity code that sets them apart from the pagan nations surrounding them.
I’m finding it easy to read but hard to digest. Easy because it’s written as a speech/sermon, so it’s like a long chat. Hard because the law code is so angular and brutal to my modern ear. In adjacent paragraphs there are commands so humanitarian and evolved that they put our country’s approach to civic duty and to the poor and alien to shame — today’s set: hunting/gathering in a way that stewards the land without depopulating it, building public railings to keep people safe, taking care of a stray animal until its owner comes for it. This alongside commands that are so misogynist, absolutist, or religiously manipulative that they make me cringe — today’s set: stoning children for disobedience, burying excrement with a shovel so God won’t be disgusted and abandon the camp, and banning from worship descendants of an illegitimate union for 10 generations). I’ve taken to highlighting in one color the verses that jump out with inspired beauty and highlighting in another color those WTF! verses that NEVER, ever will be read in church. It’s quite a motley patchwork.
Most people who merely dip into Leviticus or Deuteronomy and read a few verses come away saying, ‘Wow, how backward and just plain weird. I’ll stick with the New Testament, thank you.’ But as I read serially, I’m seeing in that first highlighted group of texts, and even in some of the second, this huge ethical surge forward, a raising of the behavioral bar from the popularly accepted norms of the time in the treatment of women, of natural resources, of worship, and just about everything else. It sounds awfully backward to us now, but it was rigorously forward-thinking then.
And it’s also helping my reading comprehension to recognize that these texts are being complied and created in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., by priests during and after the Babylonian exile, as they weld back together a brutalized and paganized people in the wasted homeland that they’re returning to. Reaching back 1,000 years to Moses, to retell the milk-and-honey origin story and rehearse the ethical and moral code given directly by the hand of God is a pretty effective way to recreate the people and raise the behavioral bar. Remember who you are, and whose you are, and therefore how you should be with one another.
So while this part of the Bible will remain at times murky, scandalous, repellant, and obtuse in its details and literal meaning, locked in its own time as it necessarily is, for me it’s soaring higher than ever in its overall trajectory and intention. It’s constantly pointing toward a horizon of behavior and attitude that is MORE ethical, more communal, more devotionally directed toward God than the culturally accepted norms at the time. It’s counter-cultural in exactly the same way that Jesus and Paul were; constantly challenging the dominant and conventional assumptions that abuse and reduce us, and instead calling us toward a fuller humanity and awareness of our immersion in divinity.
Yes, in some ways we are a world away from the perspective of the 5th-century community that produced Deuteronomy. But it is arrogance to think that our path is pure evolution, that we have nothing to learn from looking back. Evolved as we think we are today, there is a brutality that comes through our materialism, consumerism, and individualism that has unsustainably reduced our connectedness to each other, our stewardship of the world, and our moment-to-moment awareness of being held in God, which every chapter of the story we’re reading (at its highest level of interpretation) assumes and fosters.
These texts are rich and deep; they are pointing the way to something precious that can only be uncovered with the time it takes to marinate in them. I am beginning to understand how and why the Talmudic scholars have dedicated so many generations to wrestling with them. And I’m coming to enjoy the tension between my preconceptions about them, and my actual experience of them.
Starting on Ash Wednesday, over a hundred of us from Trinity launched a trek through the Bible in one year, which I consider a pilgrimage on a grand scale. Geographically, we won’t move further than our favorite morning chair and mug of coffee, but the group is already traveling great distances — through Genesis with Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob. We’re also stretching ourselves spiritually, to wrestle with what God is up to in these sometimes-resonant, sometimes-appalling and always circuitous stories of biblical pilgrimage.
Meanwhile, another band of pilgrims, 20-strong, is preparing to leave after church this Sunday for a two-week journey to literal Jerusalem, and the sites of Jesus life and ministry. We have been meeting throughout the winter to prepare ourselves to overcome the gravitational pull of tourism and to really become full-fledged pilgrims: looking not just for the photo-op, but looking for God, leaning into the unexpected and even initially-unwelcome in order to experience God coming to us in those powerful physical touch-points in the Holy Land and indeed in every moment.
I have on my office wall and in my heart Psalm 84, which by happenstance(!) was read in church on Sunday, the day before I launched my own very first pilgrimage to the Holy Land almost 25 years ago. An entire life’s journey is summarized in it:
Happy are the people who strength is in you
Whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way.
Those who go through the desolate valley
Will find it a place of springs,
For the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
They shall climb from height to height,
And the God of gods shall reveal himself in Zion.
My one hope for both groups, and for everyone reading this, and for everyone alive, is that they become more aware of their journey — that we take more risks to become dislocated from our positioning and our attachments, and take to the road to Zion, with a whole lot of road-mates who are so unlikely and so unlike us, and that we also learn to keep company with our own solitary selves. My hope is that we will value discovery more than comfort, and will risk those moments of desolation to find the hidden springs; to find God, revealed.
To follow the pilgrims’ journey through the Holy Land, go to www.trinitywallstreet.org/pilgrim starting on Friday, March 1st.
I and over 100 other pilgrims are making our way through the Bible in a year, from Lent to Lent. I’ll be writing periodic emails to the group, and will write them into this blog when they have wider application. Here’s something from the first couple of days:
I’ve been reading the meditations book that accompanies this journey, written by over 100 Episcopal Church leaders and scholars. I want to call your attention to a couple of things that the first writer, Scott Gunn points out, which can frame your whole reading of the Bible and are absolutely crucial for making sense of it.
He writes on Day 2:
“We do well to read the very difficult passages in the context of the wider narrative.”
That is a key tool to reading the Bible, to read particular passages in light of the whole story of Scripture. But while it’s a standard key taught in most seminaries, it is not universally accepted. The more fundamentalist versions of Christianity (which dominate the American scene right now) read the Bible in exactly the opposite direction: The overall story of Scripture is given definition and clarification by particular scriptures.
The way this plays itself out: Slavery was once supported by the church because it was mentioned in the Bible in a passive if not approving way (e.g. Colossians 4:1). Women are still not allowed to have any leadership role in many churches because of Paul’s outright proscription (1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Corinthians 14:34). Being gay has long been considered a disorder because of associations we make to six Bible passages. Marriage is made gender-specific because the Bible only refers to Adam and Eve.
Christian groups over the centuries have prohibited organs in churches, enforced dress codes, censured people who danced, drank, or smoked – all because of verses in the Bible. My most extreme example: a friend of mine in high school had parents who belonged to a fringe group of Christians who taught that parents were within their rights to literally stone their children for disobedience, since that is taught in the Bible (Deuteronomy 12:18-21). Incidentally, he and his brother were both model sons!
From my experience, this is a pretty dead-end way of reading the Bible. God gets smaller and angrier and more judgmental with each chapter, and so do people who read the Bible this way.
But what happens if we turn the telescope around and read the Bible from the other direction? What if we let each particular verse and story, some of which will appear dark and bloody, where God appears a little unhinged and tribal, be interpreted in light of the whole grand story?
Watch what happens as you continue to read – how the people of God who think they know where God is and what God wants keep discovering that God has jumped their boundaries, that God is outside and they have to travel to find him. What does that say about who God is and how God is and how we relate to God? (I’m going to leave these questions hanging as questions for now… Keep reading!)
Scott Gunn writes on Day 3, after God drowns all living things to get rid of the sinfulness of humanity:
“Most biblical scholars agree that the story of the flood is not history in the sense of scientific fact. Rather it is a story about God’s…desire to form a covenant with us. It is a story of MEANING that teaches us something about ourselves, our world, and our God.”
As you read the Bible, keep drilling down past the particular verses and stories to the overall thread, to the meaning that the stories are trying to get across. What were the people trying to say about the God of Heaven they knew in their time? How does that inform what we are trying to say about God we know in our time?
It’s in the gap between those two poles that the electric current passes and the Bible comes alive.
Tuesday, February 12 – 10pm.
I just came back from an extraordinary Trinity parish Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras celebration at St. Paul's Chapel that raised the roof! The builders of that building could have never imagined the uses that little church has been put to over the past 350 years. Even the last 15 years have seen people “praying their lives” in every way imaginable.
Last night we ate, we played, we danced. And then we killed off the party by talking about death.
I got the idea a few years ago, on the one and only time I visited New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. I was where every midwestern tourist congregates, on Bourbon Street, and I happened to be on a balcony above the street at midnight, where I witnessed a most extraordinary thing:
On the stroke of midnight, I saw a commotion at the top of this narrow, several-blocks-long street, and as it came into view, I could discern a tight row of mounted police, a dozen across, flank to flank, wall to wall. The reveling hoards had no choice but to scurry into side streets, into bars, further down the street. Right behind the horses motored four police cruisers, two abreast. The police politely but firmly were repeating on their bullhorns: “The party’s over; thanks for coming out; have a safe trip home; we’ll see you tomorrow in church.”
Behind them came four sanitation trucks, two abreast, outer wheels up on the sidewalk – two sweeper trucks and two water trucks, water spouts blasting, washing down the street and away in one sweep 18 inches of plastic cups and beads and all the etcetera of Carnival. Behind the trucks was left a steaming-clean street – I mean completely clean.
I stayed out for a little while longer. Folks took their party indoors, but the street carnival never recovered. It was over. What I had just witnessed felt to me almost like a liturgical event, a great hinge that honored the excess of the Mardi Gras celebration by ending it so intentionally, at it’s peak. It was not almost liturgy, it was great liturgy. It elegantly spoke to a deep human need to turn off the fun in order to repair and prepare – a need the crowd both was hungry for and could not have gotten to on its own in such a collective intentional way.
Translating that from Bourbon Street to Trinity: at St. Paul’s last night I thanked the band, the organizers, and the people, and then waited for total silence. I talked a bit about where we had come from and where we were going. Before the party I had invited people to bring back their palms from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, and pitch them into a fire pit that was standing next to the baptismal font, with the Paschal (Easter) candle burning next to it. And I invited us to carry all this out onto the churchyard porch.
There, in silence, we lit the palms from the Paschal Candle and watched them burn with the intensity of straw, and reduce quickly to barely a cup of fine ash that we use to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. While we watched them burn, I read from the prayer book Burial Service this old Eastern Orthodox prayer that to me is one of the most hopeful in all the world:
“You only are immortal, the creator and maker of [us all]; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
As we quietly cleaned up and the ashes cooled, people began asking me for them, and I put my thumb into the fire pit: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The response more than “Amen” was “Thank you.”
Something powerful happens on Ash Wednesday: acknowledging our mortality helps us to live more fully, generously, gratefully – to party from our soulful core, not in anxious denial of eventual death. What a subtle but deep difference there is in those two sources!
The party’s not over, we just take it inside us for a little while, and in the words of the Lenten Eucharistic prayer: “we prepare with joy for the Easter feast.”
Last Saturday I was attending a Trinity workshop, and at a break I had a conversation with one of the church matrons, who showed me her devotional guide that accompanied her personal Scripture reading, and asked if we could get copies into our rack for others. As we talked about the value of reading the Bible, another woman tapped me on the shoulder and said: “I couldn’t help overhearing, and if you’re planning to read the Bible together, I’d like to participate.”
Well, we weren’t planning to read the Bible together, but suddenly I knew I had to. I was already feeling a little chagrined: as I said in my last blog I had started reading the Bible through in a year on January 1, but I hadn't gotten my act together to invite anyone from the parish to join me. It felt like a missed opportunity.
So I decided to listen to this conversation as a signal, and the next day, with Lent a couple of weeks away, I stood up and made an announcement in church: “I’ve been reading through the Bible and loving it, and I’m going to start again in Lent, and I want you to join me!”
I wasn’t quite prepared for the response – nearly 50 people handed me their cards or email addresses on a bulletin and said “Count me in!” Another dozen wrote in who had watched the service on the internet and asked if they could join. Yes!
So, we’re going on pilgrimage, this growing band. If you’re reading this, I want you to sit with the possibility for a day or two, and see if you are feeling called to join us. I can promise you that if you do, you will discover the Bible and perhaps your whole faith in a new way. It will take focused attention; it’s a challenge; but there is great discovery on the other side of that challenge.
Send your email address to me at email@example.com and I will add you to my email blast list that will communicate to you as this is evolving. I don’t know exactly what will take shape, but I know that we will journey together.
At the beginning of the year there is a flurry of articles in the news about resolutions. Some talk about what people resolve to do and how these resolutions usually don’t last but are scrapped after a couple of weeks. Others talk about how the resolutions that do last are usually incremental, not huge heroic feats but tiny daily adjustments.
I resolved years ago not to make big New Year’s resolutions, for reasons the articles describe, but there is still this compelling period of hopefulness and possibility that swirls around a new year, and so I’ve been attending to those tiny adjustments in my life that might make a difference. I’ve stumbled on one that has been surprisingly fruitful:
For years I have read Scripture as part of my daily practice, usually in sync with the church’s daily lectionary. But this year I decided to read the Bible cover to cover in a year. It sounded to me at first like those resolutions that never work, a bit heroic – the sheer amount of text to cover was daunting, but I found that indeed now “there is an App for that,” and so I jumped in on January 1.
I expected my daily allotment to feel like duty, but it has not. The program I landed on was cooked up by a Scottish minister in the 19th century, and balances the different types of literature in scripture, which keeps it fresh. I have also become engrossed by the stories. These are stories I have heard from birth, but the fact of reading them without a break, without skipping the boring or unpalatable bits, has made me find connections and make links and hear nuances and discover surprises and scandals that often keep me reading past where the stop mark is for the day. I have an inkling that this new habit is starting to take me to a new place, where I am developing a relationship to the Bible that I haven’t had before. I’m less comfortable with it but more attentive to it.
And two weeks in, I’m fascinated by the dynamics of my New Year’s resolution: The whole is still overwhelming; but the daily is doable, and even inviting. When I think of reading the Bible all the through this year without a day’s break I think ‘Ugh.’ When I think of picking up today where I left off yesterday I look forward to it. Seems like a dynamic of the rest of life as well: ‘Give us today our daily bread’; it’s what we can handle. Sometimes it’s even manna from heaven.
(Now if only I can figure out a way to become as regular about flossing my teeth!)
I often let the remark go, not knowing how to engage the comment without more context, but someone phrased it to me last week in a way that made me stop and take notice: “What a year you’ve had! – What do you make of it?”
What do I make of it? If the question is: ‘How do you analyze and synthesize all the components of the year together to make sense out of it? I’m not sure I have that answer yet. But I like a secondary way of hearing the question: What do you MAKE out of it? What do you DO with this basket of tumultuous and varied experience?
What can we create with it?
So I think the better question is: “What has all this made of us?” How have we let ourselves be truly affected so that we are truly changed? A favorite author, Frederick Buechner, speaks about Listening to One’s Life – that the seeming happenstance, the random and circuitous path that we walk, when we pay attention to it, reveals a thread, and starts to show a deeper purpose and identity of our lives. At the end of this year, I find myself paying a lot of attention to the present – looking for the subtle signs of what the past year’s events have made of us.
Having just come out of an unforgettable and epic flood – where in an instant our secure structures were made very fragile. In that moment, suddenly a whole framework of strong relationships revealed itself: people taking care of other people – friends and strangers. We all took notice in our congregational council meeting following the storm how catastrophe changed the nature of our conversation and focus, uncovered what mattered, and showed us where our hidden strengths lay.
This past year feels almost like an era in itself, and perhaps a subtle watershed. I see a lot of renewed hope and enthusiasm – and I see subtle differences in my own energy and perhaps in others’ as well. There is more interest and attention to process where before we were more focused on result and accomplishment. What we are doing in the world is important, but HOW we are doing it is more important still. We are now talking more freely about what it means to become a community of practice, to create a culture of love, to behave what we believe. When there is inevitable misunderstanding, even misrepresentation, and conflict, the integrity of our practice will eventually win out, if we are investing in it, and cultivating it, with our whole heart.
All of this could be boiled down, I suppose, to a renewed focus on following Jesus. Not a trite WWJD - “What would Jesus do?” but rather “What is Jesus doing?” Where is Jesus leading us more deeply into our own conversion, and out into the world of great need and hunger?
Trinity will always have pretty ambitious plans and projects to influence the world for good and for God, which is a wonderful goal, but in the stillness of the hinge of the year, reflecting on where we have been and where we are going means listening deeply to who we are becoming now, and how Jesus is calling us closer together, to follow where we haven’t yet been, which will change us all, again and again.
We have more skin in the game now, and that’s a good thing.
Author: The Rev. Daniel Simons
Created: July 21, 2009
Worship is the single greatest investment of resources in any church's life, including Trinity Wall Street, and it is the primary lens that focuses our life together. Worship is a language that links us back through generations and yet is newly born in each moment!
This blog focuses more on primal patterns than technique --looking at how we are embodied souls needing to act out our faith. It is a reflecting pool for leaders of other congregations, for members of Trinity seeking to understand the patterns of the liturgy more fully, and for seekers who are aware of or interested in the power of ritual.